The Deepest Hand-Dug Well

Jul 13, 2021 1 comments

Sitting outside the Nuffield Hospital in Woodingdean, near Brighton and Hove, is a small, inconspicuous-looking covered well. But despite its unassuming appearance, Woodingdean Water Well holds the distinction of being the deepest hand-dug well in the world. At 390 meters, it is as deep as New York’s Empire State Building is tall.

Woodingdean Water Well

Woodingean water well, located near the entrance of Nuffield Hospital. Photo: Yiorgos Stamoulis/Wikimedia Commons

The Woodingdean Water Well is as much an example of Victorian stubbornness as it is engineering. Back in the 1850s, the Brighton Corporation decided to build a new workhouse at the top of what is now Elm Grove, and to add to it an industrial school for juveniles some 2 miles away at Warren Farm. Established for the children of men and women living in the local workhouse, the aim of the school was to teach the misplaced youth of the town “the habits of industry” and relieve them from “the bane of pauperism.”

To provide water for this new institution, the corporation decided to sink a new well as bringing piped water in from the local waterworks was expensive. What followed was an elaborate cost-cutting exercise.

The initial plan was to dig a 6-feet-wide brick lined well down to some 400 feet where it was expected to hit the subterranean water table. After 2 years of digging, the shaft went past 400 feet, but no water was found. Believing that they missed the water source, the contractor gave instructions for a lateral chamber to be driven some 30 feet northwards, but this too yielded nothing. More lateral tunnels were driven westwards and eastwards, but none of them were successful. Instead of giving up, the Guardians of the workhouse sanctioned the construction of a 4 feet wide shaft at the end of the eastern tunnel.

Woodingdean Water Well

Graphic by My Brighton and Hove

For the next two years, digging continued round the clock, with men working in appalling condition. Illuminated by the light of candles, workers descended rickety ladders hundreds of feet below the ground to dig at the earth with hand tools, loading buckets with spoil and passing it up to the surface, then using bricks passed down from above to line the tiny interior. Steam engines pumped air through pipes down below so that workers could breathe. The heat was so stifling that many removed their clothes and worked naked within the confines of the 4-feet-wide circle.

The deeper the well went, the costlier it became to continue digging. The Woodingdean Well was now costing the local taxpayer some £90 a week, and the Guardians began to bicker about the expense. Many joked that the town was trying to dig to the antipodes.

Woodingdean Water Well

The last green sand taken from the Warren Farm Well. Photo: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Woodingdean Water Well

A vial of water from the first pailful drawn from the Warren Farm Well. Photo: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Finally, at the depth of 1285 feet (850 of which were below sea level) and after four years of digging, the earth began to move. As water broke through the surface, the workers scrambled up the shaft to avoid getting drowned. It took 45 minutes just to climb out from that amazing depth.

Despite the massive cost, the enormous effort and the promise that the well would save the town a fortune each year in water rates, it was used for only four years, after which the well was abandoned in favor of a more practical mains supply.

The school that the well was dug to supply water with is long gone, but the well remains in its place. It is now surrounded by a 2 feet flint and brick wall and the top is covered by a metal lid to prevent people or things falling down down.

# Deepest hand dug well in the world, My Brighton and Hove
# Kate McNab, Relics from the deepest hand-dug well in the world, Museum Crush


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